Blasphemy film ban backed by Europe

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The Independent Online
Free-speech activists, humanists and lawyers united in fury yesterday after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the ancient law of blasphemy does not infringe the right to freedom of expression.

In a ruling that appeared to bend over backwards in Britain's favour, the Strasbourg judges declared by a seven-two majority that the fact that the archaic law did not treat all religions on an equal footing did not affect its legitimacy.

The judges said that "a wider margin of appreciation" was available to states in relation to matters "liable to offend intimate personal convictions in the sphere of morals or religion", as they declared that the ban on Nigel Wingrove's film Visions of Ecstasy did not breach Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Wingrove's case was that the law not only interfered with the film director's right to freedom of speech but was discriminatory, because it did not cover the many religions practised in the United Kingdom other than Christianity.

The 20-minute video, depicting the erotic visions of St Teresa of Avila, was seven years ago refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification, whose decision was upheld by the Video Appeals Committee.

Mr Wingrove, 39, said: "I was told it would go against me because it has become very political now." The combination of an earlier blasphemy ruling in favour of Austria and the Lord Chancellor's visit yesterday to Strasbourg told against him, he said, even though the Church of England had never called for him to be prosecuted.

Mark Stephens, of Mr Wingrove's solicitors Stephens Innocent, said the decision was "very worrying". When the case had been argued the court was "buzzing" over the position statement put out by Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, last year about the Government's attitude to the court.

In the midst of controversy last year over the court's ruling that the killings by the Special Air Service of three IRA terrorists on Gibraltar in 1988 were unlawful, Mr Rifkind said the British government had been "concerned about some recent judgments of the court" and stressed that it was "important that the Strasbourg institutions gave full weight" to the principle of the margin of appreciation.

Yesterday's decision contradicts a 14-2 ruling in favour of Mr Wingrove by the European Commission on Human Rights before referring it to the full court. At that time, Mr Stephens said, Nicholas Bratza QC, the UK's commissioner, had made a speech saying the BBFC ban broke Article 10. Mr Stephens said he felt the court would have taken Mr Rifkind's statement into account.

Had the court upheld the commission's view not only would Mr Wingrove's film have been unbanned but the UK would have been obliged to abolish the law of blasphemy.

As it is, a law which protects only the Church of England and no other religion has been reprieved. When the Government was pressed by Muslim leaders to extend the law to Muslims, the then Home Office minister John Patten, insisted that it was "inappropriate for dealing with matters of faith".

The National Secular Society is organising a public meeting to protest about the decision. "This decision effectively gives special privilege to Christians to restrict freedom of speech and to silence any criticism of their religion," Keith Porteous Wood, the NSS general secretary, said.